When I was in my last year of teaching junior college—meaning next year I’d be 26 and wouldn’t be drafted—I needed a strategy for getting through that last semester. Three years in the bizarro town 60 miles from the Gulf should have gotten me killed, beaten up, or at least arrested (and then beaten up). It’s not like people didn’t try.
Meanwhile, newly-divorced me absolutely couldn’t wait to jump into my hot-rod VW camper bus and take off for the Ozarks. My friends and I, five of us in all, had bought 170 acres east of Fayetteville for $10,000. No structures or electricity, but huge trees, streams, and waterfalls. (It must seem incredible that this could be enough. It wasn’t, of course, but maybe I came closest.) I was all set. I had my dog, my guitar, 50 pounds of brown rice, the Whole Earth Catalog, and a book by a yogi called “How to Know God” that I never did read. But you have to understand, I was going, and I was not the only one.
The pressure was crazy right up to the end. They opened my mail and didn’t hide the fact. The deputy sheriff watched the house from a squad car across the street. On my last week in town, a cheerleader supposedly wanting to buy something from my yard sale came by to entrap me: there were football players waiting outside to run in and “save” her and mess my shit up, as the saying goes. How in God’s name did I ever make it to class those last few months? There was no way to play hooky, either. I had to show up or the dean was going to have my occupational deferment pulled. Fortunately, I had a secret weapon:
CREEDENCE CLEARWATER REVIVAL!
Yup. Every morning before I headed out the door, I’d play “Up Around the Bend” on my stereo as loud as it would go. It’d be playing while I shaved or pulled my jeans on. While I counted off another day until I got my freedom. If you don’t know the song, I’m sorry you missed it. What a fine screaming hippie stomper with a great guitar hook! It pumped me up and set the necessary attitude. A tuning fork for revolution, as it were. Here’s John Fogerty performing live in 2005 (sans CCR). What you should really do is start the video and then re-read the whole piece:
There’s a place up ahead and I’m goin’
just as fast as my feet can fly
Come away, come away if you’re goin’
leave the sinkin’ ship behind.
Come on the risin’ wind
we’re goin’ up around the bend…
OH yeah. (And that first verse is probably just as relevant as it ever was.) At any rate, it has come to my attention, belatedly as usual, that in approaching this writing life—besides not actually, uh, writing very much—I have also neglected vast areas of experience which once brought me great joy. Do not follow in these footsteps! It is all of a piece. All I’m getting at here is to bring the whole person to the battle, whatever it is. Don’t leave your passions in the closet in an effort to be sensible or serious.
I may do one thing now, but I am calling in the army.
Teaching college was supposed to fend off the draft board circa 1968. But it didn’t always work. It didn’t work for me. I got the Greetings letter about two months after I started teaching in Memphis in the fall of that year. You seem to have been certain that you would avoid that fate, which you did, but how could you know for sure at the time?
Two weeks ago I attended my niece’s wedding in Memphis. Her father, a guy the same age as us, made a point of his having served in Viet Nam even though, as he said, “I never saw the point of the war”. Having served was nevertheless an important part of his personal story – perhaps his equivalent of your having gone to Arkansas. We’ve all got different stories. So be it. It all seems so long ago. The past is truly a foreign country.
Congratulations on your niece’s wedding!
As for the draft, one could never be too sure back then. There was so much variation from draft board to draft board. The dean and the college president wrote nice letters to mine in Houston. I was also teaching about an hour away from there, which might have helped. And all along, I’d been getting top-notch counseling. I knew (and used) all the delaying tactics. I was ordered to report for my physical too, before I started teaching, but I worked the system and kept putting it off at the last minute by filing the appeals just so, etc. It worked! And bought me time to get the deferment.
It was the healing power of rock & roll that made me tap this particular memory again, by the way. Part of some work I’m doing.
An addendum to previous reflection: It was in late August 1963 (nearly 50 years ago) that you and I and D.S. made that trip to Padre. The reason this comes to mind is that I have been reading retrospectives of a big event that occurred precisely at the time we were hanging out on the beach – the March on Washington culminating in the Martin Luther King “I have a dream” speech. I don’t believe we took any note of it at all, never discussed it, never discussed the freedom rides or any of the things that were about to transform the nation. We were encapsulated in our own stories, and of course we were adolescents. History is something that happens elsewhere when you’re that age. Or maybe any age.